A lot has been said about this particular topic, especially lately, and I could write volumes about it. The fact is, all of the various basic accusations are true: does Coach K get special treatment? Absolutely. Is there a tinge of racism to his recruiting? Yes, although the media shares part of the blame there for lionizing his teams beyond their ability year in and year out. And finally, are Duke fans utterly delusional elitists grasping at straws to explain their special treatment? Yes, yes they are.
First, for the favoritism shown Duke’s defense by referees: any Malcolm Gladwell reader can point out the snowball effect that the myth of Duke’s ‘hard work’ and ‘hustle’ has in terms of the calls they get on the court. Referees convinced that Duke has a lock on how to play defensive basketball are infinitely more likely to call borderline charge calls in their favor, and routinely do. Duke players are almost as notorious for flopping as they are for reaching in and hacking; as Wake Forest Coach Bob Staak once put it: “Oh yeah, Duke plays great F’ing defense. Five guys fouling all the time.” Duke plays a kind of high-energy, high-contact defense that should put them in the double bonus by the ten-minute mark (and does do so for other teams), but instead get lauded for their effort. For evidence of what happens when refs do call fouls against Duke appropriately, one need look no farther than their game against Maryland on February 12, 2005: all five starters fouled out, and they lost to an inferior squad in overtime.
Coach K is an unapologetic, self-aggrandizing control freak, and it shows in every part of his coaching strategy, from recruitment on up. The racism Jalen Rose identified in the Fab Five documentary is, in my opinion, not necessarily outright bigotry so much as Coach K’s unwillingness to recruit anyone he doesn’t think he can control (perhaps he was burned by Luol Deng’s early departure, who knows?). As a result, he tends to recruit smaller, less talented athletes, because he knows they know they need him and his system, and won’t depart early for the draft. While I would argue this doesn’t have to exclude inner-city African Americans, clearly, in Coach K’s mind, it does.
Make no mistake, when I say ‘less talented’, I don’t mean these are scrubs – they are still All-Americans. K wanted Harrison Barnes as bad as anyone else, among others. But by recruiting athletes who are not head and shoulders better than everyone around them, Krzyzewski places the onus of the discussion on his ‘superior coaching intellect’. According to K, the story should consistently be that his five, B-list athletes (to use a Hollywood term) can beat teams with 6 or 7 All-Americans on their roster, and that the brunt of the difference is made up by his unparalleled coaching. Nor is he gracious about letting others point this out: he repeatedly goes out of his way to point out that his team of hardworking underdogs are going up against lottery picks in every game. It’s a strangely passive-aggressive way of pumping yourself up, much like K’s yearly flirtation with the LA Lakers: clearly, in Krzyzewski’s mind, he is the only thing standing between Duke and basketball oblivion. He may actually be right, but not because his coaching strategy makes diamonds out of coal. What K brings to Duke is the myth of Duke as the great White hustlers, and the favoritism comes with it. Without K, that disappears, and they become another 16-13 team in the middle of the ACC pack.
Duke fans are absolutely insane about how their team has ‘fundamentals’ and ‘does it right.’ Over and over again, Duke haters are confronted with that line, almost verbatim, the idea that the nation loathes Duke because Duke is the only team that actually plays real, hustle basketball. Which of course is an utter lie; if Duke fans legitimately cheered for someone who ‘does it right’, ‘cares about fundamentals’ and plays hard, they would have been Tyler Hansbrough fans. Never has there been a clearer case of someone with limited talent and ability who worked his ass off to overcome that. And yet they howled against him, denigrated his performances, and finally, threw an elbow at him (a clearly intentional assault that Coach K later explained away by saying he shouldn’t have been on the floor), and therein lies the nuance of Duke’s outlook: it’s not racism per se, it’s elitism, and it’s phoney elitism. It is perhaps no surprise that a student body brought together primarily by their failure to get into Harvard and Princeton would spend the rest of their time at college desperately trying to prove they are better than the rest of the world, and, more specifically, better than their in-state, public-school rivals down the road.
Tyler Hansbrough, and the Carolina class that won the 2009 NCAA Championship with him, were hated above all because they exposed Duke for the self-satisfied, self-anointed blowhards that they are. Starting with the Senior Night game at Duke in 2006, their hard work made a mockery of the self-involved Duke Seniors, none more so than JJ Reddick. Reddick was supposed to be the white, blue-collar hero of that game, of that season, and of that decade. And then Tyler came along, and shot that 3 at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down, and the horrible reality came suddenly into focus: there were blue-collar, hard-working heroes who did it right and hustled on the floor, but they were Carolina Blue. Not, as it were, Royal Blue.
Duke continues to be the most overrated, mollycoddled team in college basketball. They are not the only ones to get preferential treatment, but they are among the worst. Why? Because elevating Duke, and praising them for ‘doing it right’ is insulting to every college basketball fan and player who has ever hustled, played good defense, or been a good sportsman. It is an outright lie, and if the basketball establishment were ever to admit that, Duke would fade from the firmament, with or without Coach K.